"There’s another change: From the New World is the first in the series to abandon plot-fertile Europe in favor of the Americas. Some people suppose that means “the United States,” but that’s not entirely true. While you will visit places like Chicago, Vegas and New York (and even the Grand Canyon), you’ll also witness destinations beyond US borders. One such place is the Caribbean, where you’ll encounter a band of pirates that hang out near a haunted ship."
The original Shadow Hearts found players exploring a village littered with skulls and dark mist before engaging in a brief struggle against cannibalism. This wasn’t particularly surprising, not in an alternate version of early-1900s Europe where demons and sorcery still pervaded and Roger Bacon was unspeakably powerful. Yet the game itself was unexpected, both for its dark themes and its addictive ring system that lent the combat system new levels of interactivity. Several years later, we’re up to the third in the series, Shadow Hearts From the New World, and the question has to be asked: does it retain everything that made its forbearers so special?
The short answer is ‘yes,’ though that comes with caveats. Consider first the game’s lighter tone. You have demons popping out of portals to make lunch of those unfortunate enough to be caught up in the struggle for power, sure. And you have historical figures that existed and a few that didn’t, such as the addition of Al Capone’s lesser-known sister, Edna. The delicious mangling of history has never been better, but there’s enough comic relief here that those seeking an ever-spiraling sense of darkness and despair will be disappointed. At least they still have Rob Zombie.
There’s another change: From the New World is the first in the series to abandon plot-fertile Europe in favor of the Americas. Some people suppose that means “the United States,” but that’s not entirely true. While you will visit places like Chicago, Vegas and New York (and even the Grand Canyon), you’ll also witness destinations beyond US borders. One such place is the Caribbean, where you’ll encounter a band of pirates that hang out near a haunted ship. The vibrant colors on display here provide a welcome change from the grungy tones so common in the big cities where most of the adventures take place.
Changes in setting aren’t all that you should expect, though. The protagonist this time around isn’t even remotely Yuri-like. Johnny Garland is a teenager in possession of a detective agency and a sense of adventure. When life punches him in the face, he’s not afraid to keep moving and doing what’s right. His lack of angst is perfect. Not only that, but he’s surrounded by a supporting cast that includes the world’s dumbest ninja, a giant cat who is a master of drunken fighting, a Spaniard with an explosive guitar and a Native American named Shania who often sheds her clothing to morph her smoking hot body into a fearsome monster. I’ll take her over Yuri any day of the week!
Shania isn’t mere eye candy, though. She’s a great fighter with a compelling reason to join the party. After she saves Johnny from certain death, she enlists his aid in a struggle she has undertaken. Someone in the world wants to see Malice unleashed. This corrupt magic twists all it encounters into shells of their former selves. It accounts for the portal-hopping demons, too. For some reason, there’s a mysterious woman traveling through the country, opening portals that will destroy everyone around her, even as her red-headed bodyguard fights to make sure she can continue the struggle he believes will help her regain her humanity. Behind the scenes, someone is pulling the strings that make the rest of the world’s inhabitants his puppets. But why?
While you work to uncover the answer, you’ll play through a game that is unmistakably part of the Shadow Hearts mythos. If some of the tweaks to the formula that I mentioned above have you discouraged, never fear: From the New World is one of the most impressive role-playing titles the Playstation 2 has ever seen and true to its roots in every sense that matters.
First, the graphics--both in the CGI sequences and in terms of well-rendered environments and character models that lend every pixel such personality--are breathtaking. The music is great, too, in its moodiness and in its sheer quality. Oh, and I love how the voice acting brings new life to each of the characters. That’s not what I’m talking about, though. What really makes the game so darn impressive is the way these fine attributes meld perfectly and don’t fall apart the minute you’re sucked into a random encounter.
Like its predecessors, From the New World knows that it sucks when you start having an adventure and some lame fight brings it to a screeching halt. You’ve played games like that before. Maybe you even got up and grabbed yourself a snack from the refrigerator while pondering whether or not you really wanted to keep wading through menus before watching “spectacular” battle animations for the thousandth time. Here, there’s none of that. Though battles don’t have the constant stream of activity like they did in games such as Grandia, there’s definitely a good amount of player involvement. That’s all thanks to the rings.
When you tell one of your characters to attack, that’s not the end of it. The minute you choose your attack from the many options available, an oval-shaped meter appears and a line starts circling it like a clock stuck on fast forward. As the hand spins, there are zones where you must press the ‘X’ button. Generally, there are around three. Tapping the button within each of these sweet spots will make the attacks successful. Those with an especially good eye can try for little marks within each zone that result in boosted damage, but the clumsy will usually miss and fumble the attack as a whole. It might sound like a minor innovation at best, but anyone who has played a previous Shadow Hearts game can tell you that it makes a huge difference. You finally have an active role in deciding a battle’s outcome, beyond barking orders and making soda runs.
With that said, there remain a few slight flaws. Random battles still occur with more frequency than I would like, even if they are engaging. When you’re wandering through massive environments, it’s easy to grow frustrated each time you’re stopped. In some cases, such as when you must trip a switch and then run to an open doorway before it can close again, getting pulled away from the task at hand is especially irritating. Besides that, even standard encounters can result in your untimely demise if you get careless. Enemies are capable of pulling off spectacular combos when it suits them, or surprising your party and managing a lethal combination of first attacks. Saving regularly is a good strategy. The safest way to counteract such dastardly opponents is of course to level grind, and few people enjoy that.
Such flaws ultimately keep Shadow Hearts From the New World away from the top of the heap, but only by the narrowest of margins. The end product is still one of the finest role-playing games you’ll ever experience. The characters, the setting and even the combat are a refreshing mutation of a stagnant genre. I heartily recommend the game to anyone who likes a good RPG.
Staff review by Jason Venter (March 12, 2006)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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